This interview contains spoilers for Orange Is the New Black season three.
Orange Is the New Black has never been concerned with sparing its viewers emotional pain. And in season three, it ripped the rug from under us with a startling, emotionally dense episode dedicated to Litchfield's most fleshed-out character: Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett. Over the course of three seasons, Pennsatucky has reinvented herself from a toothless, Bible-thumping meth-head to a gentler, more complex woman who, in season three's opener, finds herself questioning the kind of mother she'd have been to all her unborn children over a makeshift cemetery. For that reason, it felt particularly cruel when, after Pennsatucky's history of sexual abuse is revealed in a flashback, we see her raped in the present by a new corrections officer, Charlie Coates, assigned to guard her on van duty. Vulture spoke with Taryn Manning about Pennsatucky's troubled past, Big Boo's failed revenge plot, and why Coates may not be out of the woods just yet.
Every season sort of feels like this sadistic competition of whose life is the worst. And I’d argue that Pennsatucky has the edge over Sophia in season three. Were you surprised at where her story arc went?
Yeah, I was surprised. I’ve obviously been on this show [for three seasons], and I’ve clocked that you never really know what’s gonna happen. And I was really intrigued by this arc because I am an actor, and I really enjoy seeing where a character starts and where they end up. I like the thought of really seeing this girl ... It was definitely some hard content — sad, too, and very eye-opening with how differently people deal with these kinds of things. I do believe the real Pennsatucky’s actually a real sweetheart, she’s just been in jail and hardened. So it was surprising to see all the different colors of her. She’s really funny, and maybe having a considerate time sober, that’s where this new person’s coming from. She’s not using, and her new friend Big Boo has sort of made her deal with things differently.
This last TV season had a few different instances of rape on both Game of Thrones and Outlander, and now with Orange Is the New Black. We see Pennsatucky experience two traumatic sexual attacks at different times in her life, both played out in one episode. How did you approach those scenes?
Yeah, I guess you’re right. I didn’t think about [there being two rape scenes in one episode]. I approached them in a way that comes from her upbringing. If you notice, the way her mother taught her about sex and having her period, sometimes what we teach our kids is maybe things that we went through. And it just goes down and down and down the line, and somewhere along the way, someone’s gotta break this cycle. So you have this girl that’s been on meth — which is a pretty heavy, serious drug — and I think there’s a two-part thing going on here: (1) You see her fall into the pattern of how she was dealt with as a kid, and (2) you also see a girl that’s kind of disappointed. Because I got the sense that she really started to get a crush on him [Coates]. And I don’t even know if it was a crush, but I think she was really enjoying him and was then just hurt by this. It was sad, and I just feel like sometimes less is more; for me, you don’t need to see the kicking and the screaming. I think that’s shown by [her] checking out [while being raped]. It’s a mechanism for people who are abused.
I think a big part of Pennsatucky’s purpose in jail is to finally find someone who genuinely loves her and who treats her the way she deserves to be treated, like her ex-boyfriend, whom we meet in a flashback, once did. Is that why she even tries to start a relationship with Coates?
I think she found herself over time getting a crush on him because they take these van rides together and they have this funny banter. It just happened, and she very quickly tried to put up a boundary because I think she really revered her job as a van driver and has gotten out of trouble. She had a bit of a purpose there, and did a really good job of showing the new girls around the facility. She felt so good about her job. She even goes to apologize to him and is like, “I’m sorry I acted like that” [after she gives him the cold shoulder]. There’s some remorse there, and it’s genuine. And I think it just comes from being knocked down, literally, being beat up and all these types of things. It kind of got her good. So she’s come a long way.
Yeah, I think the Pennsatucky of season one may have gone through with Big Boo’s revenge plot to sodomize Coates after they drugged him. But we see her really come to terms with who she is as a person and what she wants her life to become. Were you surprised she didn’t stoop to his level of violence?
No, because I think she really liked this guy. She’s still processing it, too. And what she does now — I don’t know if she’s gonna get revenge. I personally don’t see it, but you never know with this show what the heck they’re gonna do.
Well, after Pennsatucky fakes a seizure to get relieved of van duty and away from Coates, both she and Big Boo see that Maritza’s been picked as the new driver. And we have to assume she’s now in danger, too. Do you think Pennsatucky will report Coates next season?
I don’t think she’s a snitch anymore. Or, at least, I don’t want her to be.
Even if it's to protect another inmate from that kind of pain?
I don’t really know where her moral compass is right now. I think she might still have feelings [for Coates], I’m not gonna lie. I don’t think she totally understands that that was completely wrong. And I’m not saying that she’s stupid, I just think sometimes we make excuses for people when we like them. And we’ll take abuse or do things that we wouldn’t normally do because of, I don’t know, the way we were raised. We hear ourselves thinking, Oh, he didn’t mean it like that. I expect to see a little more conflict in her heart. But I think out of jealousy, maybe, she might rat on him because she doesn’t want him to be with anybody else. I don’t really think she’s that mad, though. She’s still sad. But I hope she does the right thing. I just don’t know if he’s gonna do that to anybody else.
One scene that was particularly uncomfortable to watch was when we begin to realize something’s off with Coates. They're at the lake, and things start off so innocent and playful, but then it escalates to him treating Pennsatucky like a dog in a bit of role-playing, and then him forcing himself on her for the first time. How did you read that scene?
At first she thought it was fun, until the second time around, when it wasn’t so funny. At the van, she’s a little standoffish, but she apologizes for it because I think she was having a good time. When he makes her go on her hands and knees, though, that’s when it got weird. And, you know, everybody has weird fetishes — so do girls — so maybe that’s just something in him that he’s always wanted to do with a girl. People are weird.
This season, Pennsatucky and Big Boo develop an even stronger bond. They’re basically each other’s only friend in prison. What’s it like doing those scenes with Lea DeLaria?
Oh, I love it. We’re actually really good friends in real life. So we have a great onscreen chemistry, and I really have a lot of fun working with her.
Who are you hoping to have more scenes with next season?
I’d be happy to work with any of them, I just really want good material. We all do. I love working with Taylor [Schilling] and Laura [Prepon]. I’d like to work more with Emma [Myles] again, too. Anybody, really.